Slavic folk tradition exhibits notions about the dead person having to travel long distances here on earth in order to reach the land of the dead; or over a rainbow or across the Milky Way; or up a steep mountain of iron or glass; or sailing after death to a land beyond the ocean, sometimes imagined to be situated at the place where the sun sets, sometimes being simply an island; the land of the dead may also be situated beneath a certain lake, or the dead person may be thought to inhabit his grave. Siuts has demonstrated this kind of variation in German folktales: in order to get to das Jenseits [the beyond] – the troll or the land of the dead, in many cases – one has to travel far, and farther than far, maybe through several kingdoms and over the sea or a big river, or a bridge; or one has to get across a silver mountain or a golden mountain on the way, or across an endless plain, or through a large, thick, dark forest; in some cases one has to go to the sun or the moon; or into a hole or shaft in the earth, or a well; far, far down; or into a hole or through a passageway leaning in a vertical direction or leading up into the daylight in the otherworld; or up onto a mountain, preferably one that reaches into the sky and is steep and smooth as glass; or a mountain may open, so that one may enter it. This kind of variation is found also in Norwegian folktales, and in other ethnic religions, and partly also in the large book religions. In ancient Greek religion one imagined lands of the dead situated both in the underworld (Hades) and on a western island or islands of happiness (for the chosen), not unlike that imagined by the insular Celts, or in or at the grave. In Jewish tradition, the mythological purgatory Gehenna seems to be located both under the sea and/or under the ground; or at the foot of a mountain range.
Beowulf, you may recall, swims down through the water to reach the cave where he battles Grendel's Mother. As a foolish young undergraduate I was taken by an eminent professor who said this must mean that the hero had swum under a waterfall and then up into a dry cave. I deeply regret that even at 20 I did not see through this pseudo-rational claptrap. Because, I mean, an author who fills his tales with monsters and a dragon couldn't possibly be so foolish as to think you could swim down through the water to a dry place.
The model for all heroic journeys, for all travels to the realms of the dead or of the gods, is the shaman's trance, and beyond that the dream. To ask whether shamans go east or west, up or down, is absurd. When asked – and anthropologists have been asking them since the 17th century – they do not speak in such terms. They go to, and past, and through; they may follow a chain of landmarks, or pass a series of tests. But mainly, they go away; away from this world and its rules and limits. Any direction will do, so long as it is away and not back.
These stories convey that the universe is more than the earth where we live our waking days, and whose rules we understand. There are places we cannot usually see or reach, places populated by different beings, some with awesome powers. They also tell us that we can sometimes cross to those worlds, and that sometimes our world intersects with some other in a way that may be wonderful or terrible. They tell us to be alert for wonders.
The tales tell us that not all knowledge can be expressed in straightforward sentences spoken by daylight. Some truths are secrets, hardly ever revealed, or mysteries, easy to speak of but very hard to understand. They tell us that the universe is awesome; that it is beyond us and above us and in us all at once; but that with the power of our minds, with our intelligence and our courage, we can journey through it, and expand our lives far beyond the huts and houses where we sleep and eat. We may be born in this world, but we are not confined to it, any more than the wind, any more than the gods.